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5 lies Scott Pruitt has told about his mounting scandals

The EPA administrator will face more questions about his spending and ethical offenses at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Scott Pruitt
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has been having a very rough week as questions about his condo deal with a lobbyist, improper raises for aides, and first-class travel continue to mount.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is trying to hold onto his job as new details about his bloated security team, and his ethically dubious hiring and housing arrangements continue to leak.

As he’s made the rounds at conservative media outlets and in front of Congress to tout his accomplishments and swing back at critics, Pruitt has made some outlandish claims.

Aside from his usual misleading platitudes, for instance that the Obama-era Clean Water Rule would have regulated puddles (it explicitly does not), Pruitt has generously scattered rhetorical chaff to obscure any wrongdoing at the EPA.

But a whistleblower, former EPA Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Chmielewski, refuted many of Pruitt’s rationales in two letters sent by House and Senate Democrats to the White House last month. And early results of some of the 12 federal investigations into Pruitt’s alleged breaches have revealed deceits as well.

Here are some of Pruitt’s biggest whoppers, updated with new details. Pruitt may have to answer for these statements Wednesday when he faces a Senate committee overseeing the EPA’s budget.

Lie 1: “These threats have been unprecedented from the very beginning.”

Pruitt’s long-running justification for his 24/7, 20-person security detail — unprecedented for an EPA administrator — has been the alleged increase in threats to him. Pruitt has said repeatedly he was following the advice of his staff, who he says insisted on the detail.

“I have a responsibility to listen to those individuals that are charged with the obligation to keep me safe and to keep the employees at the agency safe, and I listen to them,” Pruitt told CBS News.

Pruitt’s defenders, including the president, have used this line as well:

But the EPA’s Inspector General Arthur Elkins told lawmakers in a May 14 letter that it was the administrator himself who asked for a team of bodyguards, not agency officials, and he wanted them immediately when he took office, before any threats were made.

“The EPA Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training has informed the [Office of Inspector General] that the EPA’s Protective Service Detail began providing 24/7 coverage of the Administrator the first day he arrived,” Elkins wrote in the letter. “The decision was made by the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training after being informed that Mr. Pruitt requested 24/7 protection once he was confirmed as Administrator. The OIG played no role in this decision.”

Pruitt’s security has cost taxpayers $3 million and has accompanied him on personal trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl. And the threats Pruitt later received on the job were not all that menacing.

Pruitt cited unpleasant interactions with fellow travelers as his justification for flying first class as a security precaution and he received some harsh comments on social media. According to Politico, Mario Caraballo, a deputy associate administrator at the EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, approved a security security assessment in February that concluded, “EPA Intelligence has not identified any specific, credible, direct threat to the EPA administrator.” Caraballo was fired shortly thereafter.

Lie 2: “This was like an Airbnb situation”

This was Pruitt’s defense for staying in a $50-a-night condo near Capitol Hill co-owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of a prominent lobbyist, that he gave in an interview with Fox News’s Ed Henry in April.

He signed a lease (which you don’t do on Airbnb) but was only billed for the nights he was there, paying $6,100 over six months. He insists that this is an appropriate market rate, and EPA’s ethics office said as much in a hastily drawn up memo. Just about anyone who has lived in DC knows it isn’t.

Pruitt said his landlords “used the facility at the same time I was there.” Sure. To host fundraisers for Republicans.

He also said that “I was living out of a suitcase when I transitioned to DC. My wife was not with me. My children were not with me. My dog was not with me.” His daughter, McKenna Pruitt, did in fact stay with him at the condo while she was a White House intern (and damaged the hardwood floors with her luggage, according to Chmielewski, the whistleblower).

Vicki Hart said his daughter staying there would violate the lease agreement.

“The rental agreement was with Scott Pruitt,” Vicki Hart, who co-owns the property, told ABC News. “If other people were using the bedroom or the living quarters, I was never told, and I never gave him permission to do that.”

And Politico reported that Pruitt was so reluctant to give up the pad that the landlords became frustrated and changed the locks after he left.

“Scott Pruitt is the Kato Kaelin of Capitol Hill,” source familiar with the matter told Politico. “He is the long-term house guest who takes advantage of his hosts and refuses to take a hint about when it’s time to leave.”

Why was he so hesitant to pack up? It might have been because the deal was even better than Pruitt let on. According to a letter sent by House and Senate Democrats to the White House in April, Chmielewski overheard a speakerphone conversation where Vicki Hart’s husband complained that Pruitt “never paid any rent to him.”

Lie 3: “Mr. Hart has no clients that have business before this agency”

Vicki’s husband, J. Steven Hart, is the chair of powerhouse lobbying firm Williams & Jensen. Its clients include oil giant ExxonMobil, Canadian pipeline firm Enbridge, and liquified natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy.

Hart himself lobbied the EPA on behalf of OGE Energy, a regulated utility with coal, natural gas, and renewable power in its portfolio.

While Pruitt was staying at the condo, the EPA approved an expansion of Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper pipeline carrying oil from Canadian tar sands. The New York Times reported the company was also hit with a $61 million fine from the EPA in 2010 for an oil spill in Michigan.

In 2017, ExxonMobil reached a settlement with the EPA for violations of the Clean Air Act, including a $2.5 million civil penalty.

And Cheniere Energy owns the only natural gas export terminal in the continental United States. Pruitt went to Morocco last December (more below) to pitch the country on US natural gas.

Perhaps Mr. Hart recognized that the arrangement was suspicious, which is why he crossed his name off the lease and wrote his wife’s name in instead:

A minor correction.

Lie 4: “The two trips I took, Ed, were all in advancement of air quality issues, environmental issues to this country”

Pruitt’s two international trips in 2017 included a meeting with environment ministers at the G7 environment summit in Italy and an unannounced trip to Morocco.

The trip to Morocco, where Pruitt flew first class, cost $40,000, not including the expenses for his full-time security detail. Pruitt insisted that this trip was well within EPA’s wheelhouse and centered on international environmental cooperation.

But the official EPA press release about the trip says the following in literally the first sentence (emphasis added):

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt attended bilateral meetings in Morocco this week where he outlined U.S. environmental priorities for updating the Environmental Work Plan under the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement and the potential benefit of liquified natural gas (LNG) imports on Morocco’s economy.

Being a salesperson for natural gas is definitely not in Pruitt’s job description.

Chmielewski also said Pruitt’s travel was dictated by his desire to visit certain cities rather than official work and that Pruitt told staffers “find me something to do [in those locations].” Even some of Pruitt’s official meetings were pretexts, “such as scheduling an official meeting with an old friend.”

Lie 5: “My staff did it. And I found out about it yesterday and I changed it.”

The Atlantic revealed that Pruitt asked the White House to approve huge raises for two close aides. When the White House declined to do so, Pruitt’s staff invoked a rarely used provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to secure the pay bumps. The provision allows the EPA to hire up to 30 people without approval from the president or Congress and is meant to bring experts into the agency to deal with critical water issues.

Pruitt has used this provision several times before to hire industry lobbyists at the EPA, so it’s not unfamiliar to him. And the law explicitly requires that administrative hires get approval from, you know, the administrator.

But Pruitt told an incredulous Ed Henry on Fox News that he didn’t know about the raises until recently. “You don’t know? You run the agency. You don’t know who did this?” Henry asked.

“I found out about this yesterday, and I corrected the action,” Pruitt said.

After the interview, the Washington Post confirmed that Pruitt did in fact ask his staffers to find a way to secure raises for his aides. Elaina Plott at The Atlantic reported on Monday that emails show that one of the aides, Sarah Greenwalt, asked the the EPA’s human resources office to ensure her $56,765 raise went through after the White House had already declined to grant it, invoking Pruitt’s approval.

And Chmielewski told investigators that the raises were “100 percent Pruitt himself” and that he was asked to step aside from his job in order to give another one of the aides, Millan Hupp, a $28,130 pay bump.

Senate Democrats say they intend to push Pruitt in Wednesday’s hearing.

Yet despite a flurry of rumors that he was losing patience with Pruitt and his scandals, President Donald Trump apparently continues to support him.

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